Excessive Brotherly Love? - 'Fraternity' of Russians and Ukrainians as a Russian Propaganda Narrative

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Connections: The Quarterly Journal, Volume 21, Issue 3, p.47-66 (2022)


cross-cultural comparison, fraternal people, institutions, Russia, Ukraine, values


This article aims to show, using evidence from cross-cultural studies, that the peoples of Ukraine and Russia differ significantly on the individualism-collectivism dimension that lies at the heart of national identity. It argues that the idea of Russian and Ukrainian fraternity is, in fact, a myth, based perhaps on some limited cultural accidentals or overly-broad categorizations of temperament and not on fundamental ideologies that undergird the society. Illusions of the fraternity are a product of propaganda based on a range of narratives about the countries (including Ukraine) Russia considers its “area of influence” and has been unsuccessfully trying to return under its control. Understanding the motivations of Russia, a state with a legacy of authoritarianism and consistently strong ideological opposition to democratic values, is key to making sense of such narratives and the logic behind them. Cross-cultural studies provide insights for a broader understanding of inherent differences between Russian and Ukrainian peoples. Approximately 50 percent of the variation in national cultural orientations is unique to the country and is rooted in the lasting differences in historic developmental trajectories. Of particular interest is the relationship between individualism and collectivism in Russian and Ukrainian cultures and its respective impact on the institutions, as these dimensions are among the most distinctive for cultural variation. The author argues that one can discern clear distinctions in cultures by observing the distinct evolution and varying importance of institutions.

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Perhaps, no Russia-created myth about Ukraine remains as deeply ingrained in our memory and sense-making as “Ukrainians and Russians are fraternal peoples.” [1] Several generations of Ukrainians have grown up being sure they have historical similarities and a connection with Russians that has never really been there. In reality, the statements about “fraternal peoples” are a product of propaganda based on a range of narratives about the countries Russia considers its “area of influence” and has been unsuccessfully trying to bring back under its control. It is particularly eager to make Ukraine “its own again.” [2] Understanding the motivations of Russia, a state with a legacy of authoritarianism [3] and consistently strong ideological opposition to democratic values,[4] is key to making sense of such narratives and the logic behind them. Cross-cultural studies provide evidence and insights allowing a broader understanding of inherent differences between Russian and Ukrainian peoples. Roughly 50 percent of the variation in national cultural orientations is unique. It is rooted in the lasting differences in historic developmental trajectories – despite the effects of globalization and international economic cooperation.[5] Of particular interest in understanding these differences is the relationship between individualism and collectivism in Russian and Ukrainian cultures and its respective impact on the institutions. These dimensions are found to be among the most distinctive for cultural variation, i.e., responsible for many differences between national cultures.[6] The purpose of this article is to show, using evidence from cross-cultural studies, that the peoples of Ukraine and Russia differ significantly on the individualism-collectivism dimension and could not be less “fraternal.” Considering the relative scarcity of peer-reviewed research on Ukrainian national culture, the conclusions are based on the combination of sources from academic papers, international analytical organizations, and independent media.

As the Levee Steers the River: How National Culture Shapes and ‘Cements’ a Country’s Institutions

National culture takes shape over the course of centuries, influenced by the country’s landscape, climate, location, wars and ruling regimes, societal interaction and stratification, and is rather path-dependent or, in simple terms, resistant to change.[7] National culture repeatedly manifests on individual and societal levels in specific ways. It primarily shapes institutions – the mechanisms of making social choices, distributing political influence, and enduring regularity of behavior. Institutions can be formal (rules, laws, and their enforcement mechanisms) and informal (self-regulation, codes of ethics and conduct, conventions, deeply embedded social norms).[8] However, once the institutions have developed and taken root, they begin to further “steer” national culture—as the levee steers and contains the river—thus, preventing rapid and abrupt cultural shifts.[9] Institutions structure social interaction of people by endorsing shared and legitimate understandings of reality [10] (what is happening and what to make of it). Hence, no significant changes in the national culture can happen unless profound institutional changes occur.

Let’s take the phenomenon of corruption as an example. Personal networks and clan structures were established in Tsarist Russia and re-emerged among the new ruling classes in Soviet times and then among the political elite in the 1990s. They served to guard the individual interests of their participants. Combined with the deeply embedded attitude of “legal nihilism,” [11] they undermine the functioning of formal bureaucracy and serve as a breeding ground for corruption to this day.[12] The general underlying principle behind Russia’s corruption is: “Enrich those above you in the hierarchy and maintain your loyalty as you work to enrich yourself.” [13] Corruption is a way to climb up the societal vertical, strengthening connections with the “right” people along the way and paying the “toll” to the higher-ups as a token of loyalty. In such a society, appealing to those in power becomes increasingly more important than “doing one’s job.” Until the pattern of these informal non-transparent relationships persists, it will hinder the development and the functioning of formal, transparent institutions.

In the case of Ukraine, corruption has different institutional causes. It is predominantly rooted in distrust in the government institutions’ ability to perform their functions systemically. When Ukraine’s territory was split between Austria-Hungary and Russia, the respective parts followed different development patterns: in the West, the Habsburgs were fostering the Ukrainian community as a counterweight against the Poles, while in the East, the Romanovs suppressed all local identities. Consequently, distinctly different views of Ukraine’s geopolitical role and voting behavior persist today in the respective territories. One has been gravitating towards Russia, the other – towards Europe in terms of national identity, cultural orientation, the strength of community bonds, and civic engagement, transmitted largely through informal institutions, such as families and communities.[14] As key “circles of trust,” family and local community are still the most powerful informal institutions in Ukraine, with the government institutions having the lowest trust ratings since 1991, when Ukraine gained independence, till today: before Russia’s invasion in February 2022, 37.5 % of Ukrainians trusted state institutions, 19.8 % trusted the judiciary, 34.6 % trusted the police, and 30.1 % trusted other Ukrainians they met for the first time (except for the Armed Forces with 70.1 % level of trust).[15]

The ‘Layered Cake’ of National Culture: How Possible Is the Change and Why Does It Take So Long?

To make sense of how national culture can change, one must consider its three levels, which underpin each other and have different “modification” periods: (1) underlying assumptions, (2) beliefs and values; (3) behavior norms and artifacts.

For the national culture to profoundly shift, change must happen on its deepest level – “underlying assumptions,” [16] the sense-making templates society reproduces “by default” from generation to generation, which takes centuries to change.[17] For instance, among the underlying assumptions of the Ukrainian national culture is freedom [volya/svoboda] – the ability to make important decisions without pressure or coercion,[18] characterized primarily by a flexible and non-obligatory view of rules and limitations [19] with equality, fairness, and responsibility being less important than freedom.[20] In contrast, among the underlying assumptions of the Russian national culture are the lack of autonomy among the population in decision-making and violence as a means of ensuring obedience and deference. Interaction patterns are “vertical,” coercive, rather than “horizontal” and dialogue-based [21]: “forcing instead of convincing,” “imposing instead of explaining,” and “compromise equals weakness.” [22]

The next level of national culture manifestation in societal interaction and individual sense-making contains “beliefs and values,” the moving principles that “signal” how one should interact with their environment in specific situations. It takes decades to change.[23] Numerous studies, particularly by Inglehart, Beugelsdijk, and Welzel, show that though beliefs and values do shift, this change is not radical but rather follows the path established by the underlying assumptions of a specific national culture.

The key differences in the beliefs and values of Ukrainians and Russians manifest through the attitudes towards the concepts of leadership, autonomy, and national identity, underpinned by Russia’s legacy of authoritarianism [24] and Ukraine’s lack of such legacy [25]:

  • Rulers/leaders: In Russian culture, the ability to dominate through substantive and procedural rule-breaking, interfere with subordinates’ preferences without the need to justify accountability to them [26] are the key signs of an authoritative figure, and subordinating one’s interests to those of senior “in-group” members is not only normal but expected by default.[27]

    In Ukrainian culture, a leader will have authority if the subordinates believe he or she considers their interests when making decisions – a belief that’s been part of the country’s institutional tissue even during the Soviet times.[28] If a leader loses legitimacy, they can be overthrown, which happened regularly in Ukraine’s history, including the three revolutions (“On Granite,” 1990; “Orange,” 2004; and “Euromaidan,” 2014) during the last 30 years alone.

  • Population’s decision-making autonomy: According to GLOBE Project data, the key practical manifestation of Russia’s national cultural values include the inability to obtain the desired result without aggression, low consideration for moral principles and ethics, problem- rather than performance orientation, and lack of humane orientation – overall and in leader-subordinate relations.[29] Simply put, the Russian masses’ desired state can be described as “learned helplessness.” The key life-related decisions are delegated to a narrow circle of high-level people in the respective community and then “cascaded” down for execution with no effort to discuss or persuade – all peculiar to authoritarian states.[30]

     In Ukrainian society, the ability to make decisions without pressure or coercion is the key criterion of the quality of life – largely due to the tradition of resolving political disagreements through negotiations (not consolidation of power) [31]and strong regional distribution of political power.[32]Ukrainian culture, though collectivist and hierarchical, is characterized by 56 % of citizens expecting the government to provide equal conditions and opportunities with the responsibility of using those resting with each individual, and the top 4 values considered most important (after freedom) being fairness, security, equality, and dignity.[33]

  • National identity: After the USSR collapsed, Russia has lost any remnants of the national idea, which earlier revolved around maintaining the country’s “grandeur” by subduing other countries. Russia has been trying to “make itself great again” since then by “saving the Russian-speaking people” in the adjacent countries it considers “younger brothers” who need to “return home.” [34] The latest vivid example of the lacking national idea in Russia is the phenomenon of “pobedabesiye” – the meme denoting obsession with Russia’s supposed victory in the “Great Patriotic War” and claiming that “one nation” won that war, thus, denying Ukraine’s agency in this fundamental event. It manifests in Russia’s propaganda narratives aimed at justifying its attempts to impose pro-Russian values and culture on Ukraine coercively and juxtapose Russia and its “younger underdeveloped ‘brothers’ [Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova] to the ‘collective West.’” [35]

    Ukraine has never shown signs of imperial ambitions or features. On the contrary, the contempt towards anything authoritarian is deeply embedded in its national culture, while the national idea (albeit not formalized and not yet legitimized via nationwide public discussions) has always revolved around freedom [volya/svoboda], agency, and absence of coercion. Specifically, no overarching nondemocratic national identity emerged in Ukraine after the USSR collapse. Still, competing notions and sources of national identity exist, but none is compelling enough to monopolize power and impose its views and visions on society as a whole.[36]

The most visible level of national culture is “behavior norms and artifacts,” [37] including expectations, norms, and symbols that signify the desired and undesired formats of societal interactions and take years to change. Behavior and artifacts are relatively the most prone to change at all levels of the national culture; however, that change is superficial and non-fundamental. Neither temporary changes in behavior nor mimicking not shared beliefs and values (even under pressure) are able to change the national culture until its underlying assumptions change.

Among the most vivid differences in the behavioral norms of Russians and Ukrainians is the expression of one’s will and speaking up in times of danger and adversity. Since February 24, 2022, Russia, with a population of approximately 140 million, has demonstrated remarkable population passivity and the lack of mass protests, while Ukraine, with one-fourth of Russia’s population, has had three revolutions that deeply affected society in the past 30 years alone. However, nothing is surprising in such a state of affairs. Russia is among the most atomized (incongruent) societies in the world, where, as below-quoted studies show, the citizen is a “subject” lacking the agency of systemic impact on their life and no illusions of having it.

It is particularly visible in the InfoSapiens research data [38] demonstrating Russians’ passivity manifested by the admitted inability of 36 % of Russians to influence their own life (18 % of Ukrainians feel the same) and 38 % of Russians being able to influence their own life (53 % of Ukrainians feel that way). Another passivity-confirming factor is the Russians’ lack of preparedness to take any specific action to stop the “special operation.” While 30 % of them believe “Russia [but who exactly?] should stop the “special operation,” only 19 % said they would stop the “special operation” if this decision was theirs to make. Moreover, despite the numerous public outcries about “wanting peace,” the said research shows that 66 % of Russians support the “special operation” in Ukraine, 71 % feel that the “special operation” is fair, 69 % feel pride, and 64 % feel confident in the “special operation.” Only 12 % of Russians feel ashamed of the “special operation.”

InfoSapiens data above shows the contrast between Russians and Ukrainians in terms of inherent behavior norms. Russians perceive themselves as predominantly “victims” to circumstances indicative of the deeper external locus of control and delegating responsibility for decision-making to the outside forces, in this case, President Putin. Ukrainians’ embedded distrust of government as a formal institution produces a highly critical view of its actions in peaceful times. Still, in critical times (such as war), society consolidates in the face of danger. For example, President Zelensky’s ratings among those with strong political affiliations have grown from 26 % before February 2022 to 82 % in April 2022.

VoxUkraine research shows stark differences between preference for freedom and pro-democratic liberal values between Russians and Ukrainians. Particularly, in 2020, Ukrainians considered freedom the most important value, even compared with equality and security. To 70 %, freedom was preferable to equality, and to 30 % – preferable to security. In Russia, 55 % preferred freedom to equality and 24 % – to security. An important consideration in interpreting this data is the combination of freedom with a low level of violence perceived by Ukrainians – only 10 % admitted war could be necessary to obtain justice, with more than 25 % expressing the same view in the case of Russia. Furthermore, democracy was considered an indispensable form of governance by 82 % of Ukrainians and by 74 % of Russians.[39]

Had it not been for Russia’s deeply-embedded authoritarian legacy, an argument could be made that the above-mentioned data reflects the country’s multiculturality and multiethnicity. However, considering Russians’ strong external locus of control, with life being overwhelmingly influenced by external forces and circumstances, the behavior norms depicted in the InfoSapiens and VoxUkraine studies appear to be strongly underpinned by the lack of agency and delegated decision-making – forced passivity, in layman words.[40]

“I have my washing machine, my summer house is renovated, now where’s my empire?” [41]

If Russia and Ukraine are so different, then why do several flagship systems analyzing national cultures (particularly Hofstede,[42] GLOBE, Trompenaars,[43],[44],[45] Hall [46],[47]) show these two countries as having similar cultural dimensions and trajectories of values’ evolution? The reason for such seemingly identical depictions lies in the research foci of Hofstede, Trompenaars, and the GLOBE authors, who view each culture as a shared set of core values guiding their member’s behavior; however, each of the systems differs in the definitions of those values.[48]

Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another… systems of values are a core element of culture” and values as: “broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others…, systems or hierarchies which need not be in a state of harmony: most people simultaneously hold several conflicting values.” [49]

Trompenaars defines culture as “the way in which a group of people solves problems and reconciles dilemmas… it organizes values into mental programs” and values as: “a deeper layer of culture that … give the definitions of good and bad.” [50]

In GLOBE, culture is defined as “shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or meanings of significant events that result from common experiences of members of collectives that are transmitted across generations” and values as: “culturally endorsed expectations [of one’s behavior].” [51]

Hall defined culture as: “communication and communication is culture.” His studies focus on micro-level culture manifestations, specifically, conveying implicit meaning in “context” – surrounding circumstances. In Hall’s logic, the meaning conveyed by high-context cultures should be interpreted with consideration of the context in which it is happening (relationships, prior history, situation, status, time, space, etc.). In contrast, low-context cultures convey meaning mainly through words, with surrounding circumstances being irrelevant for interpreting it.[52]

Neither of the mentioned approaches focuses explicitly on the influence of the country’s formal and informal institutions on the differences in behavior values guide as they study higher-order constructs. In the explanations of national culture components’ workings, institutions are mentioned as an influencing factor, one of three differentiators between national cultures; the other two are identity and values.[53]

The country’s institutions play a decisive role in how its values and beliefs manifest through regular behavior – the institutions the country’s culture shaped in the first place.[54] Suppose the country’s formal institutions are effective (perform their function with no need to look for “shortcuts”), legitimate (accepted by citizens, not imposed on them), society-oriented (instead of self-preserving at any cost), congruent (do not contradict social norms), and accountable (checks and balances exist). In that case, they will function differently and produce different behaviors than they would, had the said characteristics been the opposite.[55] In other words, formal institutions are only effective if congruent with a country’s beliefs, values, and social norms, which shape the patterns of behavior peculiar to the specific national culture.

Further, quoted research shows that the key (though not all) differences between the cultures of Russia and Ukraine revolve around the institutionally “programmed” cultural dimensions on societal and individual levels, though several (not all) dimensions of these two countries’ cultures rank similarly.

In the Hofstede system, Ukraine and Russia are shown to have comparable levels of power distance (tolerance of power inequality in society), uncertainty avoidance (how threatening ambiguous situations are), and long-term orientation (strength of links between past and present, degree of pragmatism in following traditions).[56] In Trompenaars’ system, both countries are collectivist, particularistic, emotional, ascription-oriented, and synchronic.[57],[58]

The key reason for such similarities lies in the level of analysis Hofstede and Trompenaars apply to national cultures, which are mostly values as guiding principles for behavior norms, but not the norms themselves. For instance, of Hofstede’s dimensions, because of the above-described institutional differences, power distance manifests as competing for status via domination and coercion in Russia and via establishing “links of reliable people” in Ukraine. Uncertainty avoidance in Russia manifests as top-down decision-making and minimal agency on the lowest levels of society. In contrast, in Ukraine, the same cultural dimension manifests via short-term planning and focusing on poor scenarios when making a decision.

Of Trompenaars’ dimensions, predominantly ascription orientation in Russia manifests via demonstrating superiors’ ability to ensure subordinates’ compliance and deference through pressure and dominance. In Ukraine, the same dimension manifests via belonging to “in-group” as a pre-requisite for all kinds of cooperation – from personal to professional. Another example from the Trompenaars culture model could be the external control locus, peculiar to both Russia and Ukraine. In Russia, external control orientation manifests via voluntarily giving up agency and autonomy by those in subordinate positions to those in authoritative ones. In contrast, in Ukraine, this dimension manifests via treating rules and deadlines as movable and fluid – with circumstances being not “excuses” but valuable reasons to postpone a commitment.

Hall’s system indicates Russia and Ukraine as high-context cultures within the Slavic and Central European categories.[59] However, a different context must be considered when interpreting meanings conveyed in both cultures. The particular difference lies in the ways authority (absolute in Russia and temporary in Ukraine), leadership (top-down, directive in Russia and top-down, paternalistic in Ukraine), status (intimidating in Russia and approved by the “in-group” in Ukraine), and other national culture’s context elements are viewed.

GLOBE Project survey data on Ukraine was not available at the time this article was written. Still, Ukraine began participating in this survey in 2020, with the data expected in the nearest future (according to the GLOBE website).

Another important consideration in comparing Russian and Ukrainian national cultures is that most systems of cross-cultural analysis (Hofstede, GLOBE, Trompenaars, Hall) view individualism and collectivism as “ends of the spectrum” and, therefore, mutually exclusive cultural “dimensions.” This approach has been validated by decades of academic and empirical research. Yet, it does not fully explain the differences in the social norms and the institutionally embedded behavior patterns in countries that formally fall under the definition of “individualist” or “collectivist.”

It is possible to explain the differences in manifestations of individualism and collectivism in national cultures using an approach to national cultures as “symptoms” – rooted in cross-cultural psychology, initiated by Triandis [60] and further validated through numerous academic and empirical studies. The “cultures as symptoms” approach postulates that when national cultures are analyzed on both societal and individual levels, individualism and collectivism manifest as two distinct dimensions (not “ends of the spectrum”), which are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist within one culture. In other words, there are different kinds of individualism and collectivism. In a national culture, they can co-exist in different “proportions” and “combinations,” as well as come through in various forms. Collectivist societies can possess some individualistic values, beliefs, and behaviors, just as individualistic societies can exhibit features of collectivism. The frequency and the degree of these manifestations can fluctuate depending on contexts and situations.

“Horizontal patterns” [61] of societal relations are based on the assumption of egalitarianism, postulating that all members of the society are equal, and this equality (in rights, opportunities, status, potential, etc.) is the foundation for the functioning of a country’s institutions. Consequently, individuals realize their uniqueness and agency, strive for productive interaction with others and focus on maintaining meaningful connections and relationships. In societies like that, hierarchical systems and relationships are not the key focus, while overall gravitation is towards more egalitarian than status-driven interaction.

“Vertical patterns” [62] of social relations are based on the assumption that all individuals in the society are different – by their place in the hierarchical institutions and relations or due to the level of status gained by moving upward in that society’s systems. Consequently, countries that gravitate towards hierarchical interactions, when individuals strive to differentiate themselves from others or, better, dominate them or have higher status, give more opportunities of “getting ahead” than lower status. In such societies, people and groups are divided into “important” and “unimportant” as related to specific goals, and only the interests, rights, and goals of the former truly matter. Below, the three foundational institutional differences between Ukraine and Russia are analyzed based on the above-described institutional and methodological considerations.

Difference #1: Ukraine is a democracy with disdain for autocracy, while Russia is an autocracy with disdain for democracy

Russia is an authoritarian state with no significant periods of democratic rule throughout its history or an actionable interest in democratic societal norms.[63] In a personalist autocracy, Russia’s key decisions are made by one person (the last dictator of a similar type was Stalin [64]). Studies show that only 12,5% of such dictators lose power relatively quickly and usually through death—with or without help from their closest generals—or a coup.[65] For Russia, democracy is an irrelevant and dangerous regime because it encourages autonomous thinking of the wider population, which, consequently, becomes less controllable through pressure and coercion.[66]

In Russian culture, it is not only important to differentiate from others through status but to dominate over those on the lower hierarchical levels (to the point of resorting to violence) and to demonstrate one’s capability of ensuring deference, which gives access to interaction with those of comparable status. [67] Representatives of “out-groups” in such a society are “alien” and, therefore, considered “enemies.”

Ukraine, on the contrary, has always been fundamentally opposed to authoritarianism, particularly due to historical factors, including frequent change of rulers (local and conquerors) with varying political stances, which have led to distinctly different paths of institutional development, sets of political behaviors and “national idea” views. [68] Democratic norms developed in regions that were under Austro-Hungarian rule. [69] The active dissident movement of the 1960s and regionalism combined with consensus-seeking politics peculiar to Ukraine on the verge of USSR collapse.[70] Besides, Ukraine has never existed long enough (i.e., centuries) in the same borders and under generations of similar rulers to allow her to develop embedded approaches to statehood of any kind, let alone authoritarian. Currently, Ukraine is classified by Freedom House as a “hybrid regime” (partially free), with a significant freedom-diminishing factor being the Russian annexation of Crimea and territories conquered in 2014 and after February 22, 2022.[71]

For Ukrainians, it is important to be successful and differentiate from others through status, but the focus is on protecting one’s interests rather than dominating others. All this has to happen in synch with the “in-group” goals,[72] belonging to which improves the quality of life and allows for productive interaction with (often) weak institutions. Sacrificing one’s interests for those of the “in-group” is not a “default” expectation but a conscious choice involving consideration of one’s goals and status [73]; representatives of “out-groups” are “alien” but are not necessarily “enemies.”

Difference #2: Collectivism in Ukraine and Russia is not of the same kind

Though both Russia and Ukraine are predominantly collectivist cultures (in all flagship systems of cross-cultural analysis), the type of collectivism in these societies is not the same, and individualism also manifests differently.

Ukraine historically has been a vertically collectivist society due to the high power distance, relatively conservative and hierarchical orthodox religion foundations, and high uncertainty avoidance, all of which have caused a heightened need to control “what happens tomorrow” and to always “save for the rainy day.” [74] Further, the embedded intolerance of authoritarianism and the complexities of territory formation, coupled with parts of Ukraine being occupied by the two culturally different empires, have produced the “mix” of the two types of collectivism: vertical (imposed hierarchy, dominance) and horizontal (legitimized “in-group” hierarchy, dialogue).[75] This mix of collectivisms in Ukraine is additionally balanced by notably manifested vertical individualism, causing the society’s gravitation towards independence and personally unique status without necessarily submitting to the authority or hierarchy (but when submitting – willingly so).[76] In other words, individual freedom (albeit within the “in-group” with legitimate rulers) is foundational in the Ukrainian national culture.

Russia has invariably been a vertically collectivist country, with this dimension of individualism-collectivism variety being dominant on individual and societal levels, largely due to the embedded legacy of authoritarianism from Tsarist to Soviet and post-Soviet times.[77] Studies show authoritarian regimes’ strong propensity to be vertically collectivist, primarily manifested through rigid compliance with social norms, deference to authority, and legitimized aggression against deviant behaviors.[78]

The nature of Russia’s collectivism is such that “horizontal” practices (dialogue, persuasion through explanation and argumentation, encouraging autonomous thinking and decision-making) have been suppressed in that society for centuries. This resulted in the prevalence of “vertical” practices encouraging overt aggressive dominance as a means of getting ahead in social interactions and immediate submission to the imposed authority, with persuasion, upholding agreements, and open information exchange considered signs of the “weak” unstable regimes and unreliable people.[79] Individualism in such a society manifests predominantly on the highest levels of the societal hierarchies – meaning that one has to “prove oneself to the in-group” and to “deserve” the right to self-expression by dominating and overpowering others.

Difference #3: Different roles, characters, and developmental legacies of institutions in Ukraine and Russia

Ukraine has a historical legacy of complex development of formal institutions, particularly due to the extended periods of being subject to drastically different “treatments” from the conquering countries. With the dismemberment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772 and 1795, the territory of today’s Western Ukraine was divided between Russian and Austrian empires. In the following 150 years, the population was subjected to rather different “influences” of the respective conquerors: suppression of Ukrainian national identity, language, and culture under Russia and relative support and allowance of practicing “Ukrainianness” under Austria.[80] In 1939, the former subjects of the two said empires were reunited within the borders of Soviet Ukraine, with the country gaining full independence in 1991. These “institutional legacies” of the pre-independence periods persisted well into modern times, surviving more than 50 years of Soviet rule. In 2013, 25 % more Ukrainians in the “ex-Russian” territories were willing to be associated with Russia, not Europe, and 15 % less – willing to be involved in protests than in “ex-Austrian.” [81]

The described longevity of social attitudes and behaviors is explained by the strength of the informal institutions in Ukrainian society – tight local social networks (communities) with strong nodal actors from the local “elites.” National identities and associated beliefs, values, and behaviors these actors internalize have persisted practically unchanged as long as the community lasted.[82] This phenomenon of “tight networks of trusted people” explains the predominant reliance of the Ukrainians on informal, rather than formal, institutions and seeking acquaintances or “recommended persons” when interacting with the latter – as “insurance” of sorts, in case the formal institution does not perform its function.

At the same time, trust in formal institutions has historically been low in Ukraine – with rare exceptions when the said institutions played an obviously instrumental role in society. In the fall of 2022, the only institutions enjoying the highest trust of Ukrainians were the church (70 %) and mostly those associated with protecting the country: armed forces (96 %) and humanitarian aid NGOs (78 %). Universities enjoyed mid-level trust (62 %) and police (55 %), while the government was trusted by 51.5 % and simultaneously distrusted by 48 %, television was trusted by 51 % and distrusted by 49 %, the press was trusted by 49 % and distrusted by 50 %. Political parties were distrusted by 77 % of Ukrainians, courts – distrusted by 72 %, banks – by 66 %, Verkhovna Rada – by 77 %, big business – by 57 %, and elections as an institution – by 56 % of the population.[83]

The pattern of Russia’s institutional development is drastically different from that of Ukraine – mainly due to the impact of its authoritarian legacy on the functioning of institutions. Among the key societal outcomes of authoritarian regimes is suppressed autonomy of the population, with suppressed volition and forced compliance with norms, reflecting the interests of the “higher ups” in the societal hierarchy.[84] This leads to the population’s passivity (36 % of Russians score the ability to change their lives at 1-4 on a scale of 1-10 [85]), embedded distrust in formal institutions due to their punitive and coercive nature, and resentment of the elites by those at the bottom of the societal hierarchy – to the point when corrupt behavior is viewed as one of the ways to “get back” at or “beat” the system.[86] This combination of outcomes leads to the state of denial of the majority of the Russian population about the war in Ukraine. “It’s not a war, but a special operation,” “civilians will not be harmed,” and “we didn’t attack anyone” are not just propaganda narratives. These are “mantras” most Russians truly believe because of generations-long brainwashing by “people upstairs who know better.”

Another peculiar characteristic of the Russian culture in the institutional context (e.g., superior-subordinate relations) is the link between trust and control, drastically different from that of Europe, Ukraine included. In most European cultures, trust and control are mutually exclusive phenomena: the higher the superior’s trust in the subordinate, the lower will be the degree of control exercised to ensure the work is done. In Russian culture, trust and control co-exist and are not mutually exclusive, producing a co-dependent relationship in which a superior is incapable of fully trusting a subordinate. The latter is expecting, even wishing, to be tightly controlled, thus delegating the agency and the responsibility for their actions and decisions to the former.[87]

Evidence from numerous studies shows that Ukrainian and Russian peoples, despite the history of interaction and relative geographical proximity, differ significantly in terms of state governance legacy, interconnection and type of individualism and collectivism, and pattern of institutional development. Despite some similarities in cultural dimensions of power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and a long-term orientation, the differing underlying assumptions of Ukrainian and Russian cultures set different paths of how beliefs, values, and behaviors manifest on an institutional and individual level. And with the key difference between the two peoples being a strong preference for autonomy, decentralized decision-making, and disdain for coercion (Ukraine) and coercive submission, upward-delegated responsibility, and legitimized aggression (Russia), there is nothing “fraternal” about them.


Considering the relatively scarce evidence of cross-cultural studies on Ukraine specifically and in comparison to Russia, this article sets the framework for further research. The insufficiencies of predominantly values-based cultural analysis (albeit valid and evidence-based) do not allow to reveal the differences between Ukraine’s and Russia’s national cultures fully. Among the prospective research areas is the degree of institutional legacies’ path-dependence and impact on behavior norms in these two countries. Another potentially fruitful research area could be the regional subcultures’ dimensions in Ukraine and Russia, considering the size and the internal ethnic diversity of both countries. Such studies could add value and help clarify the findings through macro-level culture analysis frameworks, such as those of Hofstede and Trompenaars. Of particular interest is the “frontier culture” of Ukraine, as Borysenko [88] calls it, that is not easily classified as collectivist or individualist but has both these dimensions manifesting simultaneously. Triandis’ paradigm with horizontal and vertical collectivism/individualism dimensions could provide a solid methodological framework for such studies.

This article certainly has its limitations, mainly due to the lacking cross-cultural studies data on Ukraine. Another promising research area is the cross-disciplinary analysis of the influence of formal and informal institutions in Ukraine and Russia on each country’s economic outcomes and relevant citizens’ behavior norms: decision-making, compliance with laws, perceptions of and attitudes to corruption/nepotism, pre-requisites, and outcomes of societal trust. As Peisakhin [89],[90] outlines in his work, such studies will help establish what types of institutions have the most impact, for what reasons, how they change behavior patterns in national culture, and whether the impact continues after the institution has ceased to exist (e.g., an authoritarian government).

Exploring the manifestations of horizontal or vertical individualism and collectivism in Ukraine and Russia could be a rather promising area, as Triandis’ national culture analysis system has been the most instrumental in showing the underpinnings of differences between these countries’ cultures.


The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent official views of the PfP Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes, participating organizations, or the Consortium’s editors.

About the Author

Maryna Starodubska holds MSc in Human Resource Management from the University of London, Birkbeck College. She is an Adjunct Professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School (Ukraine), Visiting Lecturer at Delta Management School, Tartu University (Estonia), the School of Business and Governance, Tallinn Technological University (Estonia), and L’Institut Magellan Paris (France). In addition, she is a Managing Partner at TLFRD Strategic Communications & Management Consultancy. E-mail: starodubska@tlfrd.com

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Last updated: Friday, 31 May 2024